Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Critical Mass-at what level should the discourse be held?

Over at "The Loyal Opposition," (an example of healthy sarcasm. that) the always compelling PRAY TELL BLOG, James Frazier has posted an article providing a comprehensive overview and review of GIA's new flagship hymnal, WORSHIP, FOURTH EDITION. You can access the review via either link and read the entire critque as Mr. Frazier composed it. In recent weeks there has been an increased sense of healthy dialogue between folks affiliated with CMAA and some familiar habitues of PTB concerning matters of the OF and EF seen through the lens and prism of the recent colloquium. It was refreshing to have the likes of Jeff Tucker, Arlene Oost-Zinner and Fr. Robert Pasley engage at PTB, and the discussion is still ongoing there, here, MSF and other blogs by folks like Fr. Allan McDonald. Usually though, the POV's of CMAA folks are offered by myself, Jackson Osborn and occasionally Jeff Herbert, compared to when PTB was first erected (about the same time as Chant Cafe.) We don't need to dwell on the reasons lots of us have abandoned the conversation. But MJO and I keep the fires lit. Hope springs eternal, eh what? But after the first reading of the Frazier review I was moved to comment: Upon the first reading of James Frazier’s review I was particularly struck by the paragraphs dealing with Mass settings.
I noticed the perfunctory disinterest over the neo-Jubilate Deo ICEL setting typified by a perceived boredom with the adapted Mass XI Glory melodic motifs. Devoting so much attention and word count to other issues such as multiculturalism, relevant new hymn texts and the ensconced late 20c sacro song, it seems somewhat arrogant to treat the ICEL as crafted by our bloghost as if it were some melodically equivalent of a gnat or paramecium. Well all I can say is that when my parochial school students chant ICEL XI Glory by memory with fluidity and precision, the effect is hardly perfunctory. But then, upon second reading I noticed this little gem, “chant Masses simply lack sex appeal. commenting upon the lack of enthusiasm for D. Hurd’s Plainsong Mass staple. Did Mr. Frazier even consider that such a quip would escape notice? Or did he just assume that such irresponsible, cavalier colloquial cuteness would elicit only a chorus of “yeahs” from some “Amen Corner” of PTB elite? Well, I won’t dwell on that further at this moment. I do, however, wish to point out what should be obvious about the balance of reviews of most of the W4 settings that remain. At the end of what I’d describe as a lukewarm reception of the litany of settings both revised and new, that a great amount of attention was provided the time signatures and metered affects of many settings and certain movements within them. Only Michael Guimont’s setting was given a hearty thumbs up, presumably for the decision not to employ triple meter signatures. And then the reviewer reminds us that triple meter is popularly presumed to indicate a joyful state, which he reminds us is erroneous. Yes, and major is not “happy” and minor is not “sad.” I can even hear Homer Simpson burping “Doh!” over that keen insight. But that is not even where my point is going. Whether a setting uses a pedestrian common meter as does Proulx’s Community “Holy” or the cliché’d 6/8 of the cliché Peloquin “Bells,” the issue of metered settings as being problematic in and of themselves isn’t even considered. It’s simply reduced to A. chant not sexy, boring; B. metered versions workable gebrauchsmusik but less filling, and less satisfying. What the review cannot say as it’s not in the hymnal is the problem of how to integrate artistic inspiration and worthiness into the realistic constraints and disciplines that liturgically informed Mass settings must observe. It is a difficult task to “talk about” musical affect, but Frazier could have worked into the equation the exhortation to seek inspiration from chant and polyphony, rather than from the strains of bluegrass and the Sacred Harp. I was gratified that he did lament the reality that GIA perhaps did not scour the hinterlands for more worthy settings that would have added substantial artistic merit to rival the proportionate amount of new hymn texts. And he did, by extension, gently remind us all that the singing of the Ordinary is of higher consequence in MS than of even the Propers, so more attention might have been given to composers beyond Guimont and Haugen during the compilation. Alas. This is a real issue facing composers in the post MR3 era, but W4 is a done deal. And, for the record, chant Ordinaries are far from “sexy,” they’re transcendent, ethereal, and, uh, enchanting.
Which then elicited an immediate reply from Mr. Frazier:
I appreciate Mr. Culbreth’s comment, but he seems to have brought some underlying gripes to the review which led to a misreading of some of my observations. Regarding Mass XI, the quality of the setting has nothing to do with how well his school kids sing it. I happen to value chant masses very much (partly because they are unmetered), but my quip about their lacking sex appeal was meant sarcastically, as I thought readers would understand. (Most with-it congregations would not tolerate a chant mass.) A blog is conversational, after all. Finally, I actually thought I had given too much attention to the eight mass settings. To each his own. Hmmm, thought I, I rather thought we were going to play chess, but it seems this is checkers instead:
To the contrary, Mr. Frazier, no gripes or axes were in my kit bag in advance. But your response to a respectful commentary continues to have a dismissive tone along with that presumption. There has been quite a lot of substantial discussion about the use of Gloria XI (which also has nothing to do with my students) that explored dimensions well beyond its tessitura and sequence of motifs. So, one might expect a bit more attention than E-G-A as a critique. The quip, yes it was taken as sacrcasm. What I tried to avoid saying directly was: is that an appropriate tactic to make a point in a serious review? Or does it call into question how seriously the reviewer has regarded the task at hand. Finally, you seem disinclined to engage furthering the conversation regarding the challenges composers face when trying to set the Ordinary in a worthy manner that meets some pretty daunting criteria such as aesthetic, accessibility, duration and style. Did I miss something key to understanding Mr. Frazier's POV that, thus far, causes him to not want to engage in addressing the same concerns he expressed in his review about specifically the Ordinary settings chosen? I was careful not to mention the names Ostrowski, Bancks, Rice, Allen or Mueller et al. That wouldn't have any bearing upon the issue I did address, the dogged reliance upon metered settings that Mr. Frazier himself oft cited. In so far as the remarks Frazier made regarding the ICEL Glory (XI) and chant not being "sexy," does anyone think that it would be incumbent upon a serious reviewer to at least provide a further explanation, if not evidence, to a declaration that "Most with-it congregations would not tolerate a chant mass.? Adding to a sense of condescension, or even disdain, to preface such an unfounded notion with a statement professing his affection for chant Mass settings seems to be self-contradictory, and a little bit smarmy, ala "Some of my best friends are..." I really do await Mr. Frazier's responses here or at PTB. In the meantime, if any of you would like to explain to me "what just happened here?", I'm all ears.